Latona And The Rustics
Source: A Book Of Myths
Through the tropic nights their sonorous, bell-like booming can be heard coming up from the marshes, and when they are unseen, the song of the bull-frogs would suggest creatures full of solemn dignity. The croak of their lesser brethren is less impressive, yet there is no escape from it on those evenings when the dragon-flies’ iridescent wings are folded in sleep, and the birds in the branches are still, when the lilies on the pond have closed their golden hearts, and even the late-feeding trout have ceased to plop and to make eddies in the quiet water. “Krroak! krroak! krroak!” they go—“krroak! krroak! krroak!”
It is unceasing, unending. It goes on like the whirr of the wheels of a great clock that can never run down—a melancholy complaint against the hardships of destiny—a raucous protest against things as they are.
This is the story of the frogs that have helped to point the gibes of Aristophanes, the morals of Æsop, and which have always been, more or less, regarded as the low comedians of the animal world.
Latona, or Leto, was the goddess of dark nights, and upon her the mighty Zeus bestowed the doubtful favour of his errant love. Great was the wrath of Hera, his queen, when she found that she was no longer the dearest wife of her omnipotent lord, and with furious upbraidings she banished her rival to earth. And when Latona had reached the place of her exile she found that the vengeful goddess had sworn that she would place her everlasting ban upon anyone, mortal or immortal, who dared to show any kindness or pity to her whose only fault had been that Zeus loved her. From place to place she wandered, an outcast even among men, until, at length, she came to Lycia.
One evening, as the darkness of which she was goddess had just begun to fall, she reached a green and pleasant valley. The soft, cool grass was a delight to her tired feet, and when she saw the silvery gleam of water she rejoiced, for her throat was parched and her lips dry and she was very weary. By the side of this still pond, where the lilies floated, there grew lithe grey willows and fresh green osiers, and these were being cut by a crowd of chattering rustics.
Humbly, for many a rude word and harsh rebuff had the dictum of Hera brought her during her wanderings, Latona went to the edge of the pond, and, kneeling down, was most thankfully about to drink, when the peasants espied her. Roughly and rudely they told her to begone, nor dare to drink unbidden of the clear water beside which their willows grew. Very pitifully Latona looked up in their churlish faces, and her eyes were as the eyes of a doe that the hunters have pressed very hard.
“Surely, good people,” she said, and her voice was sad and low, “water is free to all. Very far have I travelled, and I am aweary almost to death. Only grant that I dip my lips in the water for one deep draught. Of thy pity grant me this boon, for I perish of thirst.”
Harsh and coarse were the mocking voices that made answer. Coarser still were the jests that they made. Then one, bolder than his fellows, spurned her kneeling figure with his foot, while another brushed before her and stepping into the pond, defiled its clarity by churning up the mud that lay below with his great splay feet.
Loudly the peasants laughed at this merry jest, and they quickly followed his lead, as brainless sheep will follow the one that scrambles through a gap. Soon they were all joyously stamping and dancing in what had so lately been a pellucid pool. The water-lilies and blue forget-me-nots were trodden down, the fish that had their homes under the mossy stones in terror fled away. Only the mud came up, filthy, defiling, and the rustics laughed in loud and foolish laughter to see the havoc they had wrought.
The goddess Latona rose from her knees. No longer did she seem a mere woman, very weary, hungry and athirst, travelled over far. In their surprised eyes she grew to a stature that was as that of the deathless gods. And her eyes were dark as an angry sea at even.
“Shameless ones!” she said, in a voice as the voice of a storm that sweeps destroyingly over forest and mountain. “Ah! shameless ones! Is it thus that thou wouldst defy one who has dwelt on Olympus? Behold from henceforth shalt thou have thy dwelling in the mud of the green-scummed pools, thy homes in the water that thy flat feet have defiled.”
As she spoke, a change, strange and terrible, passed over the forms of the trampling peasants. Their stature shrank. They grew squat and fat. Their hands and feet were webbed, and their grinning mouths became great, sad, gaping openings by which to swallow worms and flies. Green and yellow and brown were their skins, and when they would fain have cried aloud for mercy, from their throats there would come only the “Krroak! krroak! krroak!” that we know so well.
And when, that night, the goddess of darkness was wrapped in peace in the black, silver star bespangled robe that none could take from her, there arose from the pond over which the grey willows hung, weeping, the clamour of a great lamentation. Yet no piteous words were there, only the incessant, harsh complaint of the frogs that we hear in the marshes.
From that time the world went well with Latona. Down to the seashore she came, and when she held out her arms in longing appeal to the Ægean islands that lay like purple flowers strewn, far apart, on a soft carpet of limpid blue, Zeus heard her prayer. He asked Poseidon to send a dolphin to carry the woman he loved to the floating island of Delos, and when she had been borne there in safety, he chained the island with chains of adamant to the golden-sanded floor of the sea.
And on this sanctuary there were born to Latona twin children, thereafter to be amongst the most famed of the deathless gods—the god and goddess, Apollo and Diana.
“... Those hinds that were transformed to frogs
Railed at Latona’s twin-born progeny,
Which after held the sun and moon in fee.”
Yet are there times, as we look at the squat, bronze bodies of the frogs—green-bronze, dark brown spotted, and all flecked with gold, the turned-down corners of their wistful mouths, their very exquisite black velvety eyes with golden rims—when the piteous croaks that come forth from their throats of pale daffodil colour do indeed awake a sympathy with their appeal against the inexorable decrees of destiny.
“We did not know! We did not understand! Pity us! Ah, pity us! Krroak! krroak! krroak!”
Next: Echo And Narcissus